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A smartphone display shows the Twitter logo in Berlin, Feb. 2, 2013. (Soeren Stache/AP/File)

Why North Korean tweets are off-limits in the South

By Staff Writer / 10.08.13

On the 28th floor of Samsung’s headquarters here is a door marked “Restricted Access,” the warning emphasized by two slashing diagonal red lines. 

It does not guard the company’s plans for a next-generation smart phone, however, nor any other commercial secrets. Instead, the shelves and filing cabinets behind the door are filled with North Korean government work reports, recent editions of the ruling party’s daily newspaper, and other publications from Pyongyang

That is forbidden fruit to ordinary South Koreans, who are banned from reading them. Scholars at Samsung’s Economic Research Institute, which holds the small archive, need special clearance from South Korea’s intelligence agency to be able to consult the documents.

“And every night, I have to lock this room up,” says Dong Yong-sueng, a researcher at the institute.

South Korea’s National Security Act, a draconian law passed in 1948 that outlaws anything that might praise or promote North Korea, is a striking illustration of just how nervous this country is about its mysterious and threatening northern neighbor.

Some recent events underline the fears. Three weeks ago, for example, South Korean soldiers shot dead a man in civilian clothes who was trying to enter North Korea from the south. It was not clear why the man was trying to make the unusual journey north across the Imjin river.

Earlier this year a Seoul court sentenced a man to two years’ imprisonment because 18 years ago he made an unauthorized trip via China to North Korea and during his visit was known to have bowed to a statue of the hermit-state’s founder, Kim Il-sung.

The man then lived in Germany until he returned home last December, whereupon he was arrested for having violated the National Security Act. An appeals court last week acquitted him, ruled that the bow did not constitute a threat to South Korea’s national security.

Another appeals court last August came to the rescue of Park Jeong-geun, who had been given a 10 month prison term for re-tweeting material from North Korea’s official Twitter account. The court accepted Mr. Park’s argument that he had been lampooning the North Korean authorities; a lower court had found that he had been “supporting and joining forces with an anti-state entity.”

The last South Korean government, under hard-line President Lee Myeung-bak, made liberal use of the National Security Act; new cases under the law rose from 46 in 2008 to 90 in 2011, according to official figures. By the end of 2011 the authorities had closed 178 websites for posting “pro-North Korean” material.

It is unclear whether the new government led by Park Geun-hye, who became president in February, will pursue this approach, which earned criticism earlier this year from UN special rapporteur on human rights Margaret Sekaggya as a “seriously problematic” challenge to freedom of expression.

Just last week, Freedom House, a Washington-based watchdog, rated South Korea only “partly free” and 20th out of 60 countries in its Internet freedom report because of the way prosecutors have used the National Security Act to clamp down on online activities.

Security officials say Seoul has to keep its guard up against threats from the North, which is still technically at war with the South since the two have signed only a truce. Last month the police arrested a left wing member of parliament on charges he had plotted an armed rebellion to overthrow the South Korean government in the event of war with Pyongyang.

Young South Koreans scoff at the restrictions on their freedom of information, and laugh at suggestions that North Korea’s shrill propaganda would win anybody here over to its cause.

“These kinds of bans are the last thing that would keep South Korea safe from the North,” agrees Dr. Dong, who says the sort of newspapers and magazines he has to keep under lock and key are scarcely likely to foment Communist revolution in Seoul.

But he would be reluctant to see the law changed, he says. “The North Korea we are confronting is still stuck in a previous era,” he points out. “Times have changed, but perhaps we still need to defend ourselves in old fashioned ways because they are old fashioned.” 

Part of Corriere della Sera's story about the painting, in color at right, believed to be a newly discovered Da Vinci. (Corriere della Sera)

Another Da Vinci mystery: Is a newfound 500-year-old painting his?

By Correspondent / 10.04.13

The steady gaze and beatific smile are reminiscent of the world’s best known painting, the Mona Lisa.

Those clues, along with carbon dating and other scientific tests, have led Italian experts to claim that they have found the holy of holies of the art world: a previously unknown Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece.

Experts believe that the newly discovered painting is the full-blown, oil version of a pencil sketch drawn by Leonardo of a Renaissance noblewoman, Isabella d’Este, which now hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Leonardo completed the sketch when he was staying in the city of Mantua, in the northern Lombardy region, in 1499 or 1500.

Pleased with her portrait, the Marquesa d’Este then sent letters asking him to produce a new, more elaborate version in colored oils. According to historical records, she never received a reply.

Art historians speculated that the Renaissance master had moved on to grander, more lucrative commissions, including the Mona Lisa, which is believed to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the young wife of a rich Florentine merchant.

Now, it appears, Leonardo did indeed paint the oil portrait, perhaps when he met d’Este, one of the most influential female figures of her day, in Rome in 1514.

The oil painting was discovered recently in a Swiss bank vault, part of a collection of 400 works owned by an Italian family who have asked not to be identified.

Measuring 24 inches by 18 inches, it bears a striking resemblance to the Leonardo sketch held by the Louvre – the woman’s posture, her hairstyle, her striped dress, and the way she holds her hands are almost identical.

“There are no doubts that the portrait is the work of Leonardo,” Carlo Pedretti, a professor emeritus of art history and an expert in Leonardo studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Corriere della Sera newspaper on Friday. “I can immediately recognize Da Vinci's handiwork, particularly in the woman's face."

Scientific tests have shown that the type of pigment in the portrait was the same as that used by Leonardo, as was the primer used to treat the canvas. Carbon dating, conducted by a mass spectrometry laboratory at the University of Arizona, has shown that the portrait was painted between 1460 and 1650.

Professor Pedretti, a recognized expert in authenticating disputed works by Da Vinci, said more analysis was required to determine whether certain elements of the portrait – notably a golden tiara on the noblewoman’s head and a palm leaf held in her hand like a scepter – were the work of Leonardo or one of his pupils.

But as with any new-Leonardo-da-Vinci-discovered story, doubts were expressed by some eminent experts.

Martin Kemp, professor emeritus of the history of art at Oxford University, and one of the world’s foremost authorities on da Vinci, said if the find was authenticated it would be worth “tens of millions of pounds” but raised doubts about whether the painting was really the work of Leonardo.

The portrait found in Switzerland is painted on canvas, whereas Leonardo favored wooden boards, he said.

And Leonardo gave away his original sketch to the marquesa, so he would not have been able to refer to it later in order to paint a full oil version.

It was more likely to have been produced by one of the many artists operating in northern Italy who copied Leonardo’s works. "They'd take a Madonna head from one work and then pick the figure of John the Baptist from another, and produce a sort of pastiche. It was a sort of early version of Photoshop," he says.

Only around 15 works have been reliably attributed to Leonardo, including the Mona Lisa, which is also hangs in the Louvre.

If these latest claims are backed up by other leading da Vinci experts, that number has just jumped to 16.

A firefighter tends to an area affected by a wildfire in Happy Valley, Calif. (Max Whittaker/Reuters)

Good Reads: From revamping fire policy, to gangs on Facebook, to middle-class causes

By Correspondent / 10.04.13

There is one thing that wildfire experts know for certain: Wildfires are unpredictable.

Fires have grown larger and more intense in the past 10 years, a result of a decades-long fire policy focused on extinguishing every forest fire as quickly as possible. This practice has created an overabundance of deadwood, turning “much of the American West into a tinderbox,” Paul Tullis writes in The New York Times Magazine.

Mr. Tullis gathered the latest research and methods fire experts have explored to solve the fire predictability conundrum. Researchers want to improve firefighters’ abilities to make better predictions in the field, especially when massive fires threaten lives and property. But even improved prediction models won’t prevent fires, he writes, arguing for a new fire policy that encourages managed burns in high-risk areas. “The way to make wildfires, and the people living near them, safer is by making peace with the idea that we need to let more of them burn longer,” he writes.

Preserving Haitian culture

Through her books, Edwidge Danticat invites readers into the homes of Haitian citizens and immigrants, giving vivid life to the struggles faced by generations in a country plagued by corruption and poverty. In an interview with Al Jazeera America, Ms. Danticat, who immigrated to the United States when she was 12 years old, explained how she also sees literature as key to preserving cultural identity and family heritage, especially in the wake of natural disasters such as Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.

“We need stories because when everything else is stripped away, that’s all we have left,” she said. “When the flood has come through and you lose all your belongings, when you have to leave your country at 24 hours’ notice, stories are all you have.... When I left Haiti, I don’t remember what was in my suitcase, I don’t remember what I brought with me. I do remember the stories I was told. I remember the life I had. That’s what I came with.”

Police track gangs on social media

Patrolling social media feeds has become a new beat for Chicago police officers as feuds between the city’s hundreds of gangs increasingly begin online before turning into violence in the streets.

For Wired magazine, Ben Austen visited the Chicago Police Department and some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods to see how YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have changed the way gangs operate and communicate. “We naturally associate criminal activity with secrecy, with conspiracies hatched in alleyways or back rooms,” Mr. Austen writes. “Today, though, foolish as it may be in practice, street gangs have adopted a level of transparency that might impress even the most fervent Silicon Valley futurist.”

The growth in online engagement among gang members presents new avenues for police work in Chicago and other large cities. Police catalog data about gang sets, members, locations, and event dates, so when they track real-time inflammatory comments, officers can step in before quarrels turn violent. “Give people social media and they’ll tell you what they’re about to do,” Austen writes.

Smart phones and violence in Congo

The rate and state of poverty in Congo is staggering, especially considering the country’s abundance of raw materials and its potential to become one of the continent’s wealthiest nations. But the mere existence of its mineral wealth has fueled a decades-long bitter conflict, creating a debilitating effect on the Congolese.

“It doesn’t make any sense, until you understand that militia-controlled mines in eastern Congo have been feeding raw materials into the world’s biggest electronics and jewelry companies and at the same time feeding chaos,” writes Jeffrey Gettleman in National Geographic. “Turns out your laptop – or camera or gaming system or gold necklace – may have a smidgen of Congo’s pain somewhere in it.”

Mr. Gettleman traced the source of Congo’s resource conflict to the days of King Leopold II of Belgium, who colonized Congo for ivory and rubber, and outlines the present-day melee of government, military, and rebel groups vying for control of the nation’s vast mineral deposits. Despite efforts by governments – and even many large technology companies – to guarantee conflict-free minerals in electronics, only 10 percent of Congo’s mines in its eastern provinces are “conflict free.”

Economic growth may save the planet

In a special report on biodiversity, The Economist links the salvation of endangered species to economic growth, particularly in developing nations where habitats are being cleared to make room for farmland. As people reach middle-class status, they can turn their attention, and resources, from meeting daily needs to other causes – such as environmentalism.

The article says that “thanks to a combination of environmental activism and economic growth the outlook for [endangered] species has improved, and that if growth continues, governments do more to regulate it and [environmentalists] embrace technological progress, there is a decent chance of man undoing the damage he has done during his short and bloody stay on the planet.”

The sun rises behind the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Government shutdown? Australians might suggest the nuclear option

By John ZubrzyckiCorrespondent / 10.02.13

Some Australians watching the US federal government shutdown unfold will be feeling a sense of deja vu – that is, those old enough to have lived through the supply crisis of November 1975, when the Australian government also shut down. 

At the time, the blocking of the government’s supply bills by the opposition-dominated Senate here triggered a chain of events that led to greatest crisis in Australia’s political history – the dismissal of Parliament by the Queen’s representative.

Late on the morning of Nov. 11, 1975, Australia's Governor General John Kerr, unelected and answerable only to the Crown, fired then- Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, whose government had deferred the passing of two appropriation bills, which effectively left the government out of pocket by about $4 billion a month in adjusted US dollars. 

Mr. Kerr then appointed an opposition leader, willing to pass the bills, as prime minister. But when Mr. Whitlam's members revolted and passed a no-confidence motion in the new prime minister, Kerr wielded the "nuclear option": He dismissed both the Senate and the House of Representatives, triggering a double dissolution election. It all happened in just a few hours. And there has never been a government shutdown in Australia since.

The controversy over whether the unelected Kerr should have counseled Whitlam before sacking him remains the single most debated political event in Australia. 

Elected in a landslide just three years earlier, Whitlam believed he would have the public on his side with a radical solution to replace government expenditure with bank credit. To keep things running, employees and suppliers of government goods were to be given IOUs guaranteed by banks. 

Although there are similarities between Canberra in 1975 and the crisis unfolding Washington in 2013, there are significant differences as well. 

The most important of these, says David Smith, lecturer in American politics and foreign policy at the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University in Darlington, Australia, is the ability of Australia’s prime minister to resolve deadlocks between the Senate and House of Representatives by calling on the governor general to dissolve both houses of Parliament. Unlike in a normal election, a double dissolution, or the “nuclear option” as Dr. Smith calls it, means that the entire Senate is re-contested rather than just half the seats. 

"If there was a mechanism like double dissolution in Australia this budget crisis would be resolved a lot more quickly because there would be this 'nuclear option'. If the president could dissolve the legislature and go to an election that’s exactly would Obama would be threatening to do at this point," says Smith. 

Smith acknowledges that many political systems function perfectly well without an upper house. But he argues that in Australia’s case, the Senate ensures that a majority in the House of Representatives does not become an elected dictatorship.

"Australians look back at November 1975 as a very traumatic period in Australia's history. But it is actually an example of the system working. There was a crisis and it was resolved pretty quickly," he says.

With the US having the most rigid fixed-term system in the democratic world, Americans, he says, don’t have that luxury.

"In the United States we’ve seen four of these standoffs in the last three years. We now have the very serious possibility that the United States will default. It seems like this will drag on as long as Barack Obama is president and as long as there is a Republican majority in the House of Representatives."

A general view of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport in July 2013. A Russian tabloid reports that some $27 billion in 100 euro notes – which may have belonged to Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi – is in legal limbo somewhere within the massive airport's facilities. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters/File)

Muammar's Moscow mother lode? Russian tabloid says $27 billion hidden in airport.

By Correspondent / 09.30.13

The dark recesses of Moscow's cavernous Sheremetyevo airport, which shielded runaway former NSA contractor Edward Snowden from the prying eyes of the world for 38 days last summer, might be concealing a much more tantalizing secret: nearly $27 billion in unclaimed cash, which could be the lost fortune of Saddam Hussein or Iranian oil money diverted by US embargo.

Or, insists Moscow's leading tabloid newspaper Moskovsky Komsololets (MK), the mysterious hoard – delivered to Sheremetyevo without a forwarding address six years ago and consisting of 200 pallets of vacuum-wrapped cash – is being held in a heavily guarded warehouse at the airport while Russian authorities figure out what to do with it. 

The MK story has stirred up a frenzy in Moscow, and was apparently the main source for a sensational piece in London's Mail on Sunday that dwelt upon theories that it could be the ill-gotten lucre of deposed dictators, Chechen gangsters, or even international bank robbers.

The only official reaction so far has been a blunt denial from the press service of Sheremetyevo airport.

"We cannot confirm this information. There is no money. No such aircraft landed at our airport. It's even theoretically difficult to imagine such a situation," Sheremetyevo's press spokesman Roman Genis told journalists Monday.

In an article published last week, MK speculated that the vast trove of 100-euro notes, weighing around 200 tons, might be the orphaned riches of deceased dictators Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi, spirited away to hoped-for safety in Moscow.

In a second story published today, the paper weaves an even more tangled tale involving revenues from Iranian oil exports, allegedly funneled through Germany's Deutsche Bank Group, which got sidetracked to Moscow when US-inspired sanctions on Iran started to bite.

"It is possible that this is the money of Saddam Hussein," MK quotes an anonymous Russian security official as saying. "I can't confirm that, but am just guessing. It is well known that $60–100 billion dollars belonging to the Iraqi dictator is circulating throughout the world."

Most Russian experts consulted Monday tended to rubbish the story, saying that the huge sum alone – which would beggar even the richest Russian oligarch – makes it extremely unlikely to be true.

The newspaper, MK, is a venerable Moscow tabloid with a huge and loyal readership, but is not the most solid link in Russia's media chain. "Sometimes it's reliable, but sometimes it goes off the deep end with stories about crocodiles in the Moscow metro and such," says Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.ru, an online journal focusing on security issues.

The author of the Sheremetyevo treasure stories, MK correspondent Eva Merkacheva, says she has never actually seen the money, but claims to have documents proving its existence.

Customs lawyer Vadim Lyalin, who is quoted in Ms. Merkacheva's story, told the Monitor by phone Monday that he does indeed have clients who are trying to retrieve the cash, though he cannot name them and hasn't seen the money for himself either.

"It's too big a sum to belong to nobody," Mr. Lyalin says.

Mr. Soldatov says he's very skeptical. "Everything is possible in Moscow, but this strains credulity. It's extremely improbable."

President Vladimir Putin addresses the media after a G20 summit meeting. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Good Reads: From Putin's economic woes, to billionaire trusts, to gender equality

By Staff writer / 09.29.13

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently appeared to have the upper hand in his dealings with the Obama administration, advancing a diplomatic plan to prevent a threatened US attack on Syria and providing refuge to National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

But Brian Bremner in Bloomberg Businessweek argues that “beneath Putin’s swagger lies weaknesses at the core of the economy that threaten Russia’s future – and with it, his power base.” And, Mr. Bremner adds, “for that he can blame a familiar nemesis: the U.S.”

The threat to Mr. Putin comes from stiffer US competition for Russia’s key energy sector, which provides half of the revenue for Putin’s government. The prices Russia can get selling oil and gas have weakened as US energy production has soared. Key factors in the stronger US performance: growing use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing as well as projects slated to add 2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to the nation’s annual production. The challenge for Putin,

Bremner writes, is to revive the energy sector while trying to reduce Russia’s dependence on hydrocarbon exports.

At the heart of NSA eavesdropping

Gen. Keith Alexander, the man at the center of the National Security Agency eavesdropping controversy, is profiled by Shane Harris in Foreign Policy. As NSA director, Alexander runs the nation’s largest intelligence organization, one that has been in the news for tracking Americans’ telephone calls and online activities. He also runs the US Cyber Command, which defends military computer networks and is charged with responding to hostile acts by potential enemies in cyberspace.

The profile describes Alexander as a patriot, introspective, self-effacing, and given to corny jokes. But critics cited in the lengthy piece also assert that he “has become blinded by the power of technology.” 

Alexander’s approach is contrasted with that of his predecessor, Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden. “Hayden’s attitude was ‘Yes, we have the technological capability, but should we use it?’ Keith’s was ‘We have the capability, so let’s use it,’ ” according to a former intelligence official who worked with both men.

Enemy inside Camp Bastion

Taliban fighters, dressed as American soldiers, sneaked into a massive US air base in Afghanistan on the night of Sept. 14, 2012. Armed only with rifles and bags of raisins and nuts, the 15 intruders killed two marines, and destroyed six Harrier jets and an Air Force C-130 worth $200 million. In the latest issue of GQ, reporter Matthieu Aikins examines the battle at Camp Bastion, where the United States suffered the largest loss of aircraft in combat since Vietnam.

A number of factors were behind the loss of American lives and aircraft, Mr. Aikins found. Marine leaders cut the number of troops patrolling outside the fence around the base as the US prepared to turn over combat operations to the Afghans. A key section of base perimeter was controlled by the British, who had, in turn, delegated guard-tower duty to a handful of soldiers from the small nation of Tonga who lacked night-vision gear and had sometimes been found sleeping on duty.

How to protect your billions

Zachary Mider, writing for Bloomberg, a news organization founded by a billionaire, recently took an intriguing look at how America’s richest family – the heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton – have arranged their affairs to dramatically minimize the effect of the estate tax on their $100 billion fortune. 

“The Waltons’ example highlights how billionaires deftly bypass a tax intended to make sure that the nation’s wealthiest contribute their share to government rather than perpetuate dynastic wealth,” Mr. Mider notes.

One tactic the Waltons use is a “Jackie O. trust,” named for former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose will called for one. Jackie O. trusts “can theoretically save so much tax that it leaves a family richer than if it hadn’t given a dime to charity,” Mider writes. Of course, you have to have enough money so you don’t need to touch the trust for 20 years or more.

Fostering gender equity at Harvard

Harvard Business School’s effort to revamp its treatment of female students and faculty gets in-depth treatment in a New York Times Magazine piece. The stereotype is that all the students accepted at HBS are among the fortunate few destined for well-paid jobs in the executive suite. The reality, reporter Jodi Kantor found, was widely differing experiences based on a student’s gender and economic background.

“Harvard was worse than any trading floor,” according to students with a Wall Street background, with aggressive male students with strong finance backgrounds hazing both female students and teachers. Harvard set out to change that, spurred by the university’s female president, Drew Gilpin Faust. How did it turn out? “We made progress on the first-level things, but what it’s permitting us to do is see, holy cow, how deep-seated the rest of this is,” says Francis Frei, an HBS administrator.

Airing dirty laundry: dealing with smelly clothes while traveling... well... stinks.

By Staff writer / 09.28.13

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Smelly clothes.

It's one of the big annoyances of long-term travel abroad.

You can’t expect to bring a set of clothes for every day. Too much to carry.

Even if you could haul all the clothes you expect you might need, it still may not prove enough. A bit of rainy weather, a spilled dish, or a sudden change in temperature could derail well-laid plans.

Of course, in most professional circumstances, you can't just re-wear dirty clothes, at least not if you're trying to meet local analysts and reporters, hoping to impress them with your professionalism.

Odoriferous journalists are not particularly endearing, and I wouldn't fault any journalistic source for declining a follow-up meeting after a noxious first impression.

These sorts of concerns weighed heavily into my planning for my European travels. But I thought I had them beat.

While the early and late legs of my trip would be in Parisian and Berliner hotels – where laundry services were too pricey – I did find a small apartment, complete with washing machine, to rent at my journey’s midpoint, Warsaw. Problem solved!

Not exactly.

When I arrived, I did indeed find the apartment furnished with a washer. It was a new one too, fully functional and not yet scuffed and scratched with the loads of ages. The landlady had even left detergent.

But the washer model was called “Intuition,” which is an immediate warning sign. Indeed, the machine's labeling was ironically cryptic: no words, in Polish, English, German, or otherwise – just strange symbols arrayed around knobs and buttons in arcane fashion.

I recognized temperature settings (in Celsius, of course), but what were the numbers in round hundreds – 600, 700, 800 – next to them? The setting for “jeans” seemed fairly clear – the icon was, as one might suspect, a pair of jeans – but what did the broken triangle mean? Or the little flower? And where the heck do you put the detergent?

Faced with this kind of knowledge gap, I turned to the repository of all human knowledge: the Internet.

Armed with the counter-Intuition device's model number, I tracked down the manufacturer's website and found the manual. Victory!

Well, not exactly.

I did indeed have the correct manual, but the only version I could find was in Polish. With my knowledge of Polish confined to about three words, this was not immediately helpful. (Particularly because those three words – lody, delikatesy, and sklep, which mean “ice cream,” “supermarket,” and “shop” respectively – are not highly relevant to washing machines.)

So once again, to the Internet! Or to a different corner of the Internet, since I was already there. This time, I went to Google Translate, to put their Polish-to-English logarithms to the test.

This took a lot longer than I expected. With the manual in a PDF format and full of Polish-specific letters – Ł, Ć, Ą, and the like – the formatting was awkward at best, and required much squinting at Polish words in the manual, figuring out which letters belonged where, and reassembling that order in Google.

After nearly an hour of close scrutiny and copy-pastes – and thanks to the simplistic syntax and sentence structure that all manuals appear to use, even those in Polish – I was able to decode the washer.

Those rounded hundreds? Rotation frequency of the washer drum.

The broken triangle? “Synthetics.”

The flower? “Fabric softener.”

And the detergent goes in the receptacle marked “II,” the one marked “I” apparently being for pre-wash.

Armed with my newfound knowledge, I managed to successfully wash my clothes. No risk of having to wear a pierogi-stained shirt to an important interview. Success!

What did I learn from this epic experience abroad?  

First, the Internet is a surprisingly useful tool for doing laundry 4,000 miles from home and on the cheap.

Second, never trust a device named “Intuition” to be intuitive.

Sloitars and hurleys: Why some think Irish hurling is the 'greatest sport in the world'

By Staff writer / 09.28.13

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

The stadium was roaring.

Except for me, a fact duly noted by the boy sitting next to me in a blue and gold jersey and matching jester's cap, the colors of Team County Clare.

"You're not cheering for anyone," the boy told me.

Here we were, sitting in Ireland's largest stadium, watching the Senior All-Ireland Men's Hurling Final, a back-and-forth battle between County Clare and County Cork. Being an American with only the barest ancestral ties to Ireland, I had no dog in this fight. Rather, I was there to simply enjoy this year's biggest match in the greatest team sport in the world that no one has ever heard of.

The idea of "hurling" as a sport sounds like a joke about the stereotypical Irish propensity for drinking and fighting. It is a real sport, one that is best understood by first grasping the quirks of its close cousin, gaelic football.

Gaelic football is basically a form of soccer (a.k.a. football to the everywhere in the world except for the United States), with a few key differences. First, unlike with soccer, you can handle the ball. Second, in order to keep players from running down the field with their arms wrapped around the ball, which is about the size of a soccer ball, players must release their grip on the ball every few steps, either via a basketball-like dribble or by popping the ball up into the air briefly and then catching it. Lastly, there are two ways of scoring: the traditional "ball in the net" goal, worth 3 points, and putting the ball between the goalposts but over the goal, like a football field goal but worth one point. There are other differences but those are the main ones.

Hurling adds a few new wrinkles. First,  the ball, called a sloitar (pronounced "slitter"), is the size of a tennis ball. Second, every player has a hurley, a large wood club, about the size and shape of a field hockey stick, but with a larger head. The "dribbling" rule still applies, by the way. Players can still handle the ball, but also still need to release possession of it periodically, and the hurley provides a new way to do that: by balancing the sloitar on the hurley's head while running full tilt.

This sounds like a recipe for chaos – or the setup for a joke involving large Irishmen running about a field swinging clubs at a tiny ball.

Players do end up in brief scrums as they fight for a loose ball, but more frequent are the dashing runs of attackers zigzagging by defenders, sometimes balancing a sloitar precariously on the hurley's curved face.  Scoring comes frequently, but mostly in the one-point, field-goal variety: Games often feature a few dozen scoring plays, only a handful of which are goals. That effectively offers something to both fans of high-scoring affairs like American football or baseball, while also preserving the rarity and value of the goal.

And the sloitar isn't just airborne during scoring opportunities. Players pass it with volleyball-like slaps of the hand, or swats of the hurley. Some of those swats can rival baseball line drives – and the receiving player will often pull the ball down barehanded.

There is surprisingly little violence, as well. Injuries do occur, though they generally come not from bludgeoning, but rather from chest bumps and shoulder charges. (Of course the risk of a hurley to the head is real, so players do wear lacrosse-style helmets: a somewhat recent addition to the game.)

The Irish dedication to the sport is no surprise. The game's history dates back 2,000 years. Every county in Ireland – that's both in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland– has county teams in several different age brackets and in both genders (though women's hurling is known by a different name, camogie). Those teams compete in provincial and national competitions, the top-flight competition being the annual All-Ireland Senior Championship.

But the sport's potential for international popularity is arguably handicapped by one of its other quirks: All the players are unpaid. Note, they're not true amateurs: players get sponsorships and some are big stars in Ireland.

At half time, a team of the best players never to win the All-Ireland Senior final was introduced, and they were cheered like baseball Hall of Famers. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), the body which oversees gaelic football and hurling, says there's no appetite to go pro.

But at the same time, hurling isn't going to dissuade too many potential players abroad from dropping their soccer ball, hockey stick, or football pads in favor of a hurley if it's purely gratis. That leaves hurling on the outs in the wider sporting scene.

Oddly, it also seems to be having the inverse effect on Ireland's success in other sports. Gaelic football (also unpaid) and hurling dominate the scene so much that some question whether it's undermining Irish potential in other sports, like soccer, rugby, and the Olympic Games. As Irish sports pundit George Hook told the Monitor last year, "We'd win as many Olympic medals as New Zealand, except for the GAA. The GAA siphons off enormous amounts of talent for sports that have no world recognition."

Regardless of its untapped potential overseas, it shows no signs of fading in Ireland.

Certainly, this year's final was proving gripping. Despite a steady stream of "over the goal" tallies, the boys from County Clare weren't able to open any distance between themselves and Cork. Cork's hurlers, though more inconsistent in their scoring, were able to keep up with well-timed three-point goals – and in the closing minutes, took a one-point lead on Clare.

An inopportune foul by Cork, however, gave Clare a last-gasp scoring chance. The hurler flipped the sloitar into the air, clocked it with his hurley, and sent it between the posts to tie the match. Final result: Clare 0-25 – i.e., no goals and 25 over-the-goal points – Cork 3-16. If you do the math, that's a 25-25 draw.

A grumbling sigh went out across the 80,000-plus stadium fans. There's no overtime in hurling. Instead, they'll come back and do the whole thing over again on Sept. 28.  As the GAA website's preview says, "So, here we go again."

The replay will provide another opportunity to see what the stadium announcer declared not-so-humbly to be "the greatest sport in the world." While it may be hard to find abroad, I advise any sports fan to find a local Irish pub with satellite service. It's a sight to behold, and well worth the effort to find, regardless of your rooting interest. 

Personally, I'll be rooting for County Clare.

Roped party members walk on a glacier on Mont Blanc in the French Alps July 23, 2012. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters/File)

Found: wallet, trove of jewels, and winning lottery ticket. What would you do?

By Staff writer / 09.27.13

You cross the street and find $50 on the ground. No one is in sight. Do you go to the nearest shop or police station? Or do you pocket it?

That's the setup laid out by an international magazine this week in creating a ranking of "the most honest cities." 

But a handful of unplanned scenarios around the globe this fall shows honesty and good citizenry when faced with much higher stakes. 

Take the French mountain climber who was high in the Alps, on a glacier on Mont Blanc, when he came across a metal box labeled “Made in India.” Inside: hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of sapphires, emeralds, and rubies. The jewels are believed to be debris from an Air India flight that crashed in 1966.

The climber decided not to pocket the jewels. “This was an honest young man who very quickly realized that they belonged to someone who died on the glacier,” said local officer Sylvain Merly, according to The Times of the UK. 

The mountaineer asked to remain anonymous. But a good samaritan from Spain gives us some insight into such scrupulous behavior: he also chose the honest route after fortune – millions of dollars – crossed his path.

Manuel Reija Gonzalez was cleaning up his lottery store in La Coruña in northern Spain when he found an old lottery ticket. He ran it through the system and found it was the unclaimed winner of $6.3 million. He called the authorities.

"Because here was somebody who had a problem forgetting his ticket and I put myself in his shoes, and it's the sort of thing I could have done. I thought the best thing to do was just to return the ticket," he told the BBC World Service program Newsday.

The honesty of the French hiker and Mr. Reija Gonzalez are apparently a minority, albeit a slight one, according to a new study out this week. An experiment carried out by “Reader's Digest” showed that 53 percent of people who found “lost” wallets did not turn them in (47 percent did).

The international magazine had their reporters drop 192 wallets, each holding $50, on sidewalks and shopping centers in 16 cities. (In this case, doing the right thing was made easier – the wallets contained a contact number.)

In their ranking, Helsinki came out the most honest, with 11 of 12 wallets returned. Lasse Luomakoski, a businessman in Finland who returned a wallet, said on Radio Free Europe: "Finns are naturally honest. We are a small, quiet, closely knit community. We have little corruption, and we don't even run red lights." 

Lisbon ranked last, with results the inverse of Helsinki: one of 12 wallets were turned in. (And that was by two Dutch tourists.)

Here is the full ranking, which includes cities across Europe and the likes of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; New York; and Mumbai, India.

La Coruña was not one of the cities tested by "Reader's Digest," but it's safe to assume Reija Gonzalez probably would have passed the test. And happily, he might be rewarded for his honest choices – if the owner of the lottery ticket is never found, the money goes to him.

The climber in the Alps will likely be rewarded, too. The 1966 crash, which killed 117 people after pilots miscalculated the position of Mont Blanc, happened a long time ago.

According to The Times: “The authorities are trying to trace the possible owner of the jewels. If they are unsuccessful, French law will entitle the climber to half of them."

A big election poster of the German Christian Democratic Party (CDU) shows Chancellor Angela Merkel's hands, near the main train station in Berlin, Thursday Sept. 19, 2013. (Bernd von Jutrczenka/AP)

On the move, quietly, in Germany

By Staff writer / 09.23.13

Heading up via train from Berlin to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's electoral district in Stralsund, northern Germany, I found myself in the “quiet” compartment. I didn't quite register this until I pulled out a sandwich – apparently noisily – and noticed the funny stares.

I couldn't help but immediately compare the scene to my many forays between cities on my last beat for the Monitor, Latin America. A quiet bus or train? The possibility itself seems silly.

It's not that Mexicans, for example (and I use them as an example because it was from my home base in Mexico City that I embarked on the most inter-city travel) would be incapable of staying quiet on a bus ride. But it would simply never occur to them. It would seem the most unnatural order, even “triste,” a sad state of affairs.

I momentarily relished the silence, mostly for the sociological musings it allowed. Why, I asked myself, would Germans effortlessly and eagerly stay quiet on a train, while Mexicans wouldn't dream of it? People usually cite “the weather” to these kinds of queries. And of course there is a certain sense to that, especially when explaining the differences between community “street life” in Latin America and the “homebody” individualism in many cities in the US and Europe. But does the cold also make you less inclined to jabber?

Likewise, does the cold make you more punctual? A day after my train ride, I found myself, on a chilly day of course, awaiting one of Chancellor Merkel's last campaign events, which was scheduled to start at 2 p.m. And I almost dropped my notebook in shock when the band that was entertaining the crowd muted their microphones at 1:57 p.m. Merkel had arrived. (My editor noted that that was in fact rather imprecise of her, but in her defense, she actually ended up on stage at 2 p.m. on the dot.) The point is, in Latin America campaign events never started until three hours after they were supposed to start. I usually showed up a good hour or two late. I never once missed an event.

Back on the train, after I tired of my musings, I began to long for my travel in Mexico, recalling bus rides in which young men would bring their own boom boxes, their music drowning out the bad movies playing on the TV, and no one cared. They'd just talk right over the noise – to each other and to perfect strangers nearby (or far). I never got anything productive done on those rides. In Germany I prepared my interviews for the next day and studied two hours of French. That felt great – but I didn't feel part of a larger community.

Suddenly two little girls, about ages 3 and 5, ran through our aisle in a storm of giggles and shrieks. Their mother attempted to quiet them but to no avail. They garnered a few stares, but mostly people smiled at them (they were very cute). It made me feel more at ease knowing that some incidents can transcend oratory norms.

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